As wars go, it started quietly. And although the Battle of the Placards didn't make the evening news or draw much notice from the newspapers, it left a legion of veterans with tales to tell.
It began shortly before Vice President Dan Quayle delivered the only public speech of his quickie Phoenix campaign stop last week.
A crowd of several hundred stood sweating outside a downtown park, waiting to be let into the pavilion for the show. The problem for the photo-opportunity-hungry Republican advance people? Too many donkeys and not enough elephants. More than half of those who had shown up appeared to be Democrats.
At a carefully staged event, that could spell trouble. So began the battle, fought in Patriots Square for a few hours on a sweltering, late-September afternoon.
As Bushites began arriving at the park, they found themselves facing hundreds of Democrats, many armed with signs supporting Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Even worse, the boisterous Clintonites were warming up with chants of "Four More Months!" Some brandished homemade signs denouncing the Republicans' stance on ever-hot issues such as abortion, healthcare and Murphy Brown.
So a counterattack was organized. The first assault came from emcee W. Steven Martin, a deejay at KNIX Radio (owned by country-music legend and ardent Republican Buck Owens).
Martin announced that for "security reasons," no one would be allowed to bring political signs into the pavilion. He told the crowd he wanted everyone to have a good view, adding that placards can be mighty dangerous to people's eyes. Martin did not explain why, once they were inside the pavilion, people would be welcome to pick up a Bush-Quayle sign if they wanted something to wave.
A covey of earnest Quayleites, many too young to vote, enlisted for duty in the fight for placard security and launched sorties on unsuspecting Democrats. "Sorry. You can't take that in," a young woman told Clintonite after Clintonite. "Secret Service says you can't."
College student Ross Bell clutched a fistful of signs he had confiscated. He, too, played up the "following-orders" theme. "They [the Secret Service] said take all the signs, no matter what the party," Bell said.
And why were all the signs he confiscated pro-Democrat? "I really hadn't noticed," he said, showing promise for a bright political future of his own.
At first the Clintonites caved in. Bleached placards, virtually all of them hailing the Democratic candidates, piled up on the unforgiving brick sidewalk. And the caissons went rolling along.
It took a while for the Democrats to realize they had been had.
"This is crazy," said Jack Pruitt, a 27-year-old who grudgingly gave up one sign, then soon procured another after what was happening sunk in. "This is what American politics is about. What happened to free speech?"
A few brave Democratic souls began stuffing signs under their shirts and down their pants. Then a Clintonite approached a Secret Service agent to complain. "Hey, we're not political," the government man told the Democratic malcontent. "We don't care about waving signs at all. You'll have to take that up with the Bush people."
Before long, the agents quietly collared the Bushites and told them to knock it off.
Was the war over? No. Inside the pavilion, the battle reached a higher pitch. Many Bushites had armed themselves with hand-held compressed-air horns, capable of blaring out a cacophony that drowned out the Clintonite epithets.
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Unfortunately--or fortunately--the horns also drowned out much of Quayle's stump speech. After his 15-minute speech, the vice commander in chief waved at the cameras from the stage, smiling like a happy camper. (In the end, what was most memorable about the wham-bam trip by the ex-Arizonan was that he didn't play golf. The Republicans may be getting desperate.)
A country-western band ripped into "Drinking My Baby Goodbye." A fiddler was just starting his solo when Quayle suddenly waved for the music to stop. The solo deflated like a punctured accordion.
In his zeal to pump up his own flagging campaign, the vice president had neglected to wave his banner for the one guy he was supposed to mention.
"I forgot one thing," Quayle said. "I need you to make sure my good friend John McCain goes back to the U.S. Senate for six more years."